Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rock'n'Roll and the fall of communism

I have this theory that in a hundred or so years time, when historians are trying to make sense of the broad sweep of 20th century history, there will be a general recognition that rock music played as important a part in the fall of communism, and lifting of the 'iron curtain', as any other factor.

David Smith is a blog-follower and general supporter of our rock tours, recommending us to his local friends if coming to London. He currently works in Skopje, Macedonia and writes 'We have had Bob Dylan and Billy Idol so far this summer, so not too bad'.

For those who political geography is rusty, this was formally part of communist Yugoslavia. One of my first overseas 'adventures' was hitch-hiking to Sarajevo (also then in Yugoslavia) with the intention of seeing where Gavrillo Princip had fired the fatal shots that provided the spark for the start of the Great War of 1914. I didn't expect to find any rock music; in fact, I'd read that it was virtually banned on the other side of the curtain.

It was quite an adventure crossing the border into the east in those early 70s. Everything was austere. With no advertising there was little colour other than the incredibly bold state propaganda posters. Grey, bleak and superficially unwelcoming. Uniforms everywhere. The atmosphere was made edgier by the fact that at the time there were three or four Brits being held in a Yugoslavian lock-up for taking pictures of planes. 'Be careful' and 'Don't expect people to talk to you; they're all watched by their secret police', were the warnings I got before entering the country.

So there I was, tingling with suppressed excitement and not a little fear, looking for a bar down some back alley in a town on the coast of what is now Croati. Feeling a little like a cold war spy,I romantically imagined I was being followed. Suddenly, to my disbelieving ears I heard the unmistakable strains of a rock riff and kick-drum pattern. It wasn't possible, was it? I stealthily made my way to a half-open door as the beat grow closer and louder. Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water' pounded out from a tiny, portable Dansette in the corner of a room filled with kids.

I hesitantly peered in. I was spotted. I felt the urge to turn tail and run but I was rooted to the spot by sheer magnetism of that heart-grabbing riff. They sussed I was a foreigner immediately; probably due to the length of my hair and Levis. You can guess the rest; I was welcomed in, handed a beer, found myself surrounded by pretty young women who wanted to know what life was like in the West. I'm still unclear as to how I got back to the 'pension'where I was staying, much, much later that night.

That's it, I thought. Communism can't last. You can't stop the kids listening to rock; it's an aspirational bridge to the West. Six or so years later, with Brezhnev still in power and the Soviet army invading Afghanistan, Elton John was performing in Moscow, Zappa was an icon of the dissadent Czechs, and Beatle records were being openly sold in East Germany and Hungary (see http://www.beatlemania.hu/hng.htm). We had launched the 'nuclear option' but it was called rock'n'roll not Trident, and 30 years on the idol of the east is a Billy not a Karl or Josef.

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